The artist Shaun Leonardo has accused the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland of censorship after it canceled an exhibition of his charcoal drawings of police killings of black and Latino boys and men.
The show, “The Breath of Empty Space,” which includes images of Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, was to open last week. In the drawings, the victims are sometimes hazy, a blur, or a void: Rodney King appears as a white blank surrounded by officers. Mr. Garner is shown in a chokehold. Another drawing depicts the Cleveland park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed.
The museum canceled the exhibition, organized by the independent curator John Chaich, in March after local black activists and some of the museum’s staff members objected to it. The museum shared a statement with the artist that said that “troubling community response” made the institution realize that “we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes.”
The museum’s director, Jill Snyder, described the complaints she was hearing — namely, that “this work stirs the trauma back up for the very community that it is intending to reach, and also that there is a way in which institutions like MoCA put that pain and trauma on display disrespectfully and somewhat gratuitously — that there is a performative aspect to our presentation of it.”
In an email to his followers on June 6 revealing the cancellation, Mr. Leonardo, 40, who has shown his work at institutions throughout the United States, and created community-based arts programs in New York, responded.
“I must make it clear that I was never given the opportunity to be included in outreach, and therefore, never had a moment to engage any community member regarding the show,” wrote Mr. Leonardo, who identifies as Afro-Latino.
“What has become evident to me,” he said, “is that after grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship.”
On Sunday, Ms. Snyder posted a lengthy public apology to Mr. Leonardo on the museum’s website, which reads, in part: “I would like to acknowledge our failure in working through the challenges this exhibition presented together with Mr. Leonardo. In doing so, we failed the artist, we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves.” It concludes, “The work of anti-racism involves taking responsibility and supporting risk. We did not do this. We failed. We are learning now.”
Ms. Snyder, who said the museum has undertaken diversity initiatives in the past, added that she wished that she had invited the artist into the conversation and engaged a broader African-American constituency. In subsequent conversations “with civic leaders and other members of the community,” she said, she heard “with difficulty and tough love, that the black community is not monolithic, that we should have sought other voices.”
Earlier this year, “The Breath of Empty Space” was exhibited without incident at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore — a community scarred by the death of Freddie Gray, 25, in police custody in 2015. Mr. Leonardo’s works also include “The Eulogy,” in which he delivers remarks about Trayvon Martin and other black men and boys who have been killed, accompanied by a band playing a New Orleans funeral march. It was performed in 2017 on the High Line in New York.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland did not share the names of the critics, but in an interview, Mr. Leonardo said that he had “become aware that those views against my work are not representative of a larger black community’s perspective.”
“What I take the most offense to,” he said, is that the museum leadership “was using my work to create the opening for the dialogue that should have been happening in the first place.”
Mr. Leonardo said the reason he was speaking out now, months after the show was canceled, “was in reflection of what I saw as empty messaging coming out of primarily white art institutions since the death of George Floyd.” For example, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles apologized for a May 31 Instagram post calling for “equity and fairness” that did not mention Black Lives Matter or Mr. Floyd by name.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Mr. Leonardo, a Queens-born artist, has focused on social justice art, dealing with issues like the numbers of black and Latino men in prison, racial inequality, police use of force. “I Can’t Breathe” is a self-defense workshop where participants learn how to escape the chokehold that killed Mr. Garner, as Mr. Leonardo tells them that police will interpret self-defense as resisting arrest. In “Primitive Games,” enacted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018, Mr. Leonardo staged a nonverbal performance that brought together four groups with conflicting views on the debate over guns in America.
In the last three years, museums have become flash points for debates about racial justice after displaying artworks by white artists that address subjects like violence against African-Americans. Protests erupted over a painting based on a photograph of Emmett Till (at the Whitney Biennial in 2017) and a sculpture evoking the hanging of Dakota Indians (at the Walker Art Center the same year).
Since then, museums have sought to rebuild good will with people in the communities who feel their most painful stories are not for white artists, and museums whose leadership is overwhelmingly white, to tell. The conflict over the Cleveland exhibition reveals that even if the work is by an artist of color, an institution needs to do the proper outreach first to lay the groundwork for a sensitive show.